Alleged foreign agent Butina says Russian billionaire was ‘actually just a friend'

Alleged foreign agent Butina says Russian billionaire was ‘actually just a friend'
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The 29-year-old Russian woman accused of unregistered lobbying work for Russia and attempting to set up back channel communications between U.S. politicians and Russian intelligence argued in court documents that she does not have a formal relationship with Alexander Torshin, a Kremlin-connected billionaire and politician.

CNN reports that Maria Butina's lawyers argued Friday that Butina, currently in custody in Virginia, has no relationship beyond a casual friendship with Torshin, a former Russian lawmaker and current head of the country's central bank.

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Torshin is "actually just a friend," Butina's lawyers wrote, adding that she should be released from jail as the government's case supposedly rests on circumstantial evidence. Butina previously worked as an assistant to Torshin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's close allies. The government has a trove of messages between Butina and Torshin.

"The government relies on innuendo and undefined phrases, soundbites and alarmist buzzwords," her attorneys wrote, according to CNN. "The assertion that she was arrested for an alleged 'role in a covert Russian influence operation in the United States' is a war drum based on pure fiction."

Butina became a fixture in some Washington, D.C., conservative political circles after arriving in the country in 2016, according to court documents. Russia's government has denied that Butina is a foreign agent, characterizing her as a student eager to study in the U.S.

Butina was indicted last month for operating as an unregistered foreign agent, with prosecutors arguing she deliberately cultivated relationships with the National Rifle Association and conservative politicians in order to set up "back channel communications."

"The court filings detail the Russian official’s and Butina’s efforts for Butina to act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation,” the Justice Department said.